‘Smita struggled with curious contradictions’

Renowned film critic Maithili Rao’s new book, Smita Patil – A Brief Incandescence, is finally out. The writer speaks about the phenomenon that was Smita

Updated - October 18, 2015 04:36 am IST

Published - October 17, 2015 04:05 pm IST



Smita Patil supported the New Wave film makers, battled Hindi cinema hierarchies and constantly shunned the limelight. What would you attribute her ethos to?

She seems to have been amazingly self-effacing, not taken in by the trappings of stardom. It has to be innate and also the ethos of strong middle-class values with which she grew up. From childhood, she was actively involved in the Rashtra Seva Dal, inspired by the teachings of Sane Guruji and adhered to Gandhiji’s credo of Sarva Dharma Sama Bhava . Her father was a freedom fighter who was jailed as a teenager. Her mother was a nurse who called social work a rog — a disease the family suffered from. Actually, I call Smita the pioneer of social work at the zenith of her career — unlike stars like Nargis who became socially active after retiring from films.

It is well known that she acted for free — along with Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah — in the path-breaking Bhavni Bhavai .  Debshishu is another film that she made for free. The number of low budget films she supported is phenomenal.

Would you say the parallel film makers were disappointed or felt betrayed when she made the switch to mainstream Hindi cinema and found success in films like Namak Halaal and Shakti ?

I am not sure they were all disappointed or disapproved of it. Many, including us in the press, did feel betrayed at that time. But then, as Shyam Benegal said, they were entitled to earn a decent living. It was not only Smita who chose to act in commercial films. Shabana, Om and Naseer all forayed into mainstream films for a variety of reasons. You can say Smita’s heart was in art cinema but she also wanted to prove that she could be a mainstream star.

She was indiscriminate in her choice of bad films; Badle Ki Aag, Kasam Paida Karne Wale Ki, Ghungroo are atrocious even by commercial standards. Shakti is a vastly underrated film because it makes the oedipal conflict central in a mainstream format, the psychology is plausible and the drama is far more muted than Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay . >Smita held her own against the power-packed cast — Dilip Kumar, Amitabh and Rakhee.    

Mahesh Bhatt, in one of his interviews, recounts how he became persona non-grata for Smita after Shabana Azmi walked away with all the accolades after Arth . Was there a cold war between the two actors? Was Smita emotionally insecure? Or are these completely fictional episodes?

Mahesh Bhatt also told me that he thought Smita was hard-wired to play the fragile, psychologically unstable ‘other woman’. It was a choice that Smita made, knowing it was Shabana’s film all the way, and that the audience’s sympathy was with the betrayed wife. Yet, she could make the woman on the verge of nervous breakdown unforgettable in just a couple of scenes. The media at that time was stunned that Smita chose a role like that. She saw it as a challenge.  When you see the film again, you can see how well Smita stood up to the challenge.

The cold war was very real. Journalists who covered the industry vouch for it and there were camps. Shabana told me that she and Smita could not be friends because the media had created this huge rivalry between them. The rivalry was inevitable in hindsight. The consensus was that Smita was not equipped to play the media game or to manipulate directors for roles. Shyam Benegal describes her as guileless.

Raj Babbar is often portrayed as the villain in the Raj-Smita story. What are your thoughts on this?

I am purely going by my own bias and what has been told to me by people who knew her well. I have discounted many speculations and much lurid gossip. Raj Babbar chose not to respond to my request for an interview years ago and Smita is not here to speak for herself. So, on balance, I would blame him for betraying Smita’s trust, his promise to leave his wife and marry her. There is this curious contradiction that Smita struggled with. She was liberated and modern in certain ways and yet, she could not totally discard long-ingrained conventions of our society. Women are often pulled in agonisingly different directions because even if one is intellectually liberated, there is another part that has internalised traditional norms and values. Living with contradictions is a continuous state for many of us. Even more so for Smita, who was passionate in her commitments that left her so vulnerable.   

Raj Babbar is to blame for many of the bad career choices Smita made. They came as a package deal and many of these films, like Aaj Ki Awaaz and Angaarey , not to speak of utter melodramatic trash like Mere Ghar Mere Bachhe , were not really worthy of her talent. But as so many people have told me, when Smita gave, she gave it her all. And this included conferring respectability on bad films.  

Smita traversed the world of commercial and offbeat Hindi cinema with equal élan. Could you think of any actor from the current lot who could possibly claim to inherit that legacy?

I don’t think we have that kind of sharp division between offbeat and commercial today. Even the offbeat has elements of commercial appeal, at least in Hindi films. I first thought Vidya Balan could do it but now I think Kangana Ranaut is a serious contender. I wish Konkona Sen Sharma, with her feet in both Bengali and Hindi films, could find her way through this daunting thicket. It is early days yet, but Radhika Apte is very promising.

Smita was also a member of the Women's Centre in Mumbai and deeply committed to women’s issues. Were films like Bhumika, Chakra, Mirch Masala, Manthan, Mandi an extension of her personal views?

That is so obvious.

If she were not so passionately committed to the cause of women, the performances would not have been so authentic. This was not merely at the level of propaganda. It was a lived faith. She could be the gritty slum woman, the anonymous amma , given only a generic name, who clawed her way to survival. She gave the anonymous woman of Chakra a personality that stays in your mind. And not just because of the infamous bath-under-tap scene.

She could elevate Sonbai of Mirch Masala to an epic stature; make her a legend of a once-upon-a-time fable.

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